A tropical Utopia

WE MADE A BRIEF VISIT TO THE TOWNSHIP OF AUROVILLE near Pondicherry to visit a friend, one of the approximately 3000 members of this international ‘utopian’ community. Created in 1968, it was inspired by Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), the spiritual companion and collaborator of Sri Aurobindo. She wrote:
“Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”

Whether or not this has been achieved, I am not qualified to judge. However, Auroville, fifty years after its conception, is a lovely place to visit. It is home to many people with a creative turn of mind and attracts many people who take an interest in the arts.

Members of the Auroville community have built themselves homes and workshops with aesthetically pleasing ‘modern’ and contemporary architecture. These buildings, including structures for communal use, such as galleries, performance spaces, and restaurants, are well spaced and separated by tamed luxuriant wilderness.

During our short visit, I noticed a building, the offices of an architect, that reminded me of the Sangath Studio in Ahmedabad (Gujarat). Sangath was built between 1978 and ‘80 by the architect BV Doshi, who still uses them as his offices. Both the offices in Auroville and in Ahmedabad make use of long hemi-cylindrical concrete roofs covered with mosaics of fragments of white, sun reflecting broken ceramic tiling. Our friend thought that the studio in Auroville was built in the 1990s, but did not know whether the architect who works there was ever Doshi’s student or collaborator.

Near to the studio, we saw a tile covered brick dome above a small building. Our friend explained that this was the first free standing brick dome to be built in Auroville. In order to build it, he and his associates had to rediscover the lost art of constructing free standing brick domes.

We ended our short visit to Auroville with a superb lunch at the attractive Garden Café, which was designed by the architect whose office in Auroville I have described above.

Anybody visiting Pondicherry with an interest in the future of humanity should take a look at Auroville because, in the words of Mirra Alfassa: “For those who are satisfied with the world as it is, Auroville obviously has no reason to exist.”

Black and white

HAVING PARENTS WHO WERE BROUGHT UP IN RACIALLY conscious South Africa, I feel easier calling the two parts of old Pondicherry by their French names, ‘Ville noire’ and ‘Ville blanche’, rather than their English names, ‘Black Town’ and ‘White Town’. The English names are redolent of the sad days of racial segregation in apartheid South Africa.

While Pondicherry was a French colony, most Europeans lived in White Town, and people of local Indian origin lived in Black Town. This kind of racial separation was not unique to the French in India. The British were also keen to keep races separate. Bangalore, for example, was divided into the Cantonment (European area) and the City (local Indian area).

A rather malodorous partially covered canal or drain separates White Town from Black Town (now called ‘Heritage Town’). White Town lies between Black Town and the shore of the Bay of Bengal.

Today, more than 60 years after the French ceased to Govern Pondicherry, the White Town continues to retain its appearance as a French colonial town. Many of the buildings were built by the French and are distinctly European in architectural style. The streets are neatly laid out, tree lined, and wide. There is none of the hustle and bustle associated with most Indian towns and villages. This might be because there is little commercial activity apart from tourist related facilities (accommodation and eateries). You can enjoy a good but costly meal in White Town, but buying a newspaper or fruit and vegetables is hardly, if at all, possible.

Since our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago (just before the great storm that flooded Chennai in late 2015), the city’s authorities have placed plaques along the streets of White Town. Written both in Tamil and English (not French!), they provide short informative histories of the streets’ names.

Cross the covered drain into what used to be called ‘Black Town’, and familiar Indian urban life is flourishing. The streets are crowded; there are shops aplenty; the area is full of traffic: two, three ,four (and more) wheeled vehicles; and there are Hindu temples (as well as churches). Apart from tiny roadside Hindu shrines, the only places of worship in White Town are churches.

In contrast to White Town, the architecture in the old Black Town is not so fine. There are a few traditional Tamil style buildings, but much of the architecture is relatively new and generally lacking in visual appeal.

Apart from being a very pleasant place to visit, Pondicherry and its well preserved historical layout offer an interesting reminder of colonial life and its less savoury racist aspects. That said, the place and its beautiful seaside promenade is a joy for all visitors whether or not they have any interest in history.

Islands of worship

IN HYDERABAD, BOMBAY, and Calcutta I have seen mosques or large dargahs (mausoleums) located on islands in the middle of roads. Traffic flows on both sides of the places of worship like river water flowing around a rock.

I mentioned this to my wife, who reminded me that London has at least two churches that stand on islands around which traffic flows. Two of them are on the busy Strand: St Clement Danes and St Mary le Strand. This got me thinking about other places where a place of worship stands in a position that forces traffic to move around it. Only one place springs to mind as I write this. There is a small church in a street leading off Syntagma Square in Athens (Greece) that stands on an island in the middle of a street ( or, at least it did when I last visited the city in 1980).

Why are these places of worship on traffic islands? Maybe, the shrines were built before roads were laid out or perhaps a road was widened leaving the holy places stranded in the middle of the enlarged thoroughfare.

A surprising city

AFTER AN EXCITING DAY exploring Gopipura, an old part of Surat where my wife’s father’s family lived until over 100 years ago, we spent the following day seeing some of the better known historic sights of the city.

The castle on the bank of the River Tapi was built by the Muslim Tughlaq dynasty to defend Surat against attacks by the Bhils. It was later modified by the Mughals, the Dutch, and then the British.

Until the River Tapi silted up, Surat was an important international port city with a very active involvement in import/export activity. The silting up and the British acquisition of what became Bombay led to a decline in Surat’s prosperity. Over the years, its castle gradually fell into great disrepair.

Now, the castle is being painstakingly repaired. About half of it is currently open to visitors. The castle is being reconstructed using materials and techniques that archaeologists have discovered whilst investigating what has been left of the original structure. The result is a brand new version of what was most probably how the castle was before it began to disintegrate.

The rooms inside the castle recreate their original appearanc as deduced from archaeological examination. The rooms house a beautifully displayed collection of items portraying the history of Surat. A magnificent job has been done.

A man at the ticket booth of the castle reccomended downloading an app called “Surat Heritage Walk”, which is a very useful and well designed guide to the historical landmarks of the city.

After viewing the castle from a bridge that crosses the Tapi, which is how trading vessels would have seen it in days of yore, we visited the Christ Church (Church of North India) built in 1824. This simply decorated church has memorials to several Victorians, whi died in Surat.

We drove past the Mughal Sarai constructed in the reign of Shah Jehan. This large building was a hostel where pilgrims travelling between Surat and Mecca could be accommodated. Shah Jehan was first to encourage pilgrims going to Mecca to sail from Surat rather than travel overland or to embark on ships from Persian ports.

The Khudawan Khan Rojo, a mausoleum built in the mid 16th century, is newer than most of the medieval mosques that survive in Ahmedabad but, like them, it is rich in features adopted from Hindu and Jain temple design. The mausoleum contains the grave of its builder, Khudawan Khan, a military commander who was killed while fighting the Portuguese in about 1559/60.

The mausoleum described above is beautiful and impressive, but not ‘over the top’. The mausoleums in the Dutch, Armenian, and English cemeteries, which are close to each other and surrounded by crowded Muslim neighbourhoods, have to be seen to be believed. Many of the mausoleums are flamboyant structures with domes and details suggestive of both the art of India and the orient and also the Greek and Roman empires. These fantastic final resting places of Europeans who became rich in Surat are curiously exotic and ridiculous at the same time. The exuberance of the funerary architecture exceeds that which I have seen in European cemeteries in Calcutta and Fort Cochin. These monuments should not be missed by visitors to Surat.

As we drove between the places described above, we passed numerous old buildings, often in bad states of repair but rich in finely crafted decorative features.

After our tour, we lunched at Shukan, a restaurant that serves vegetarian thalis. As a meat eater I am not usually keen on vegetarian food, but what we were served at Shukan was much to my taste. The chef is a Rajasthani ‘mahraj’ (usually a Brahmin chef). His food was light but well flavoured. Unlike chefs cooking in the Surat traditional way, he used garlic, onions, and crushed peanuts. Yet, his dishes were not sugary as we found in other parts of Gujarat, notably in Ahmedabad and Saurashtra.

Although amongst the larger cities I have visited in Gujarat, Surat has fewer major tourist attractions than others (such as Ahmedabad, Baroda, Junagadh, and Bhuj). However, it has a visually exciting urban texture and vibrancy. The two days we allotted to our first visit to Surat was not long enough. We hope to return for longer in the future.

Familiarity does not always breed contempt

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

First published on http://www.gujarat-travels.com

A WALK IN THE PARK

BANGALORE IS RAPIDLY BECOMING AN URBAN DESERT, but luckily there are some green oases. One of these is Cubbon Park, named in honour of Sir Mark Cubbon (1775-1861). When it was first laid out in 1870 it was called ‘Meades Park’. Now, its official name is ‘Sri Chamarajendra Park’, although few Bangaloreans would recognize that name as being Cubbon Park.

Although a few roads traverse the park, they do not detract from ots pleasant sylvan nature. And, on Sundays many of these roads are closed to make them free of traffic.

Most of the park is not laid out in an obviously planned way and much of it is pleasantly in the shade of the leafy branches of huge old trees. Wherever you go, you will encounter dogs with their owners, wild dogs, people sitting or sleeping on benches or logs, people exercising, and picnickers. During a recent visit, I saw groups of young art students sitting in circles on the ground. They were cutting up old newspapers and magazines to gather materials for collages they were preparing.

Cubbon Park has its own metro station. One of its entrances is close to both a statue of King Edward VII of Great Britain and also a disused fighter jet, advertising the products of HAL, whose offices face the park.

After passing through the security check, which is present at all metro stations, I descended to the subterranean concourse. This and other parts of the station has been decorated by artworks created, with varying degrees of skill, by students of the Shristi school of design, which is located at Yelahanka, in between Bangalore and its Kempe Gowda Airport.

I was escorted by one of the Shristi students through the metro ticket barrier to another concourse that can be entered via a station entrance near the Chinnaswamy Cricket Stadium. This particular concourse had a temporary exhibition of photos of Indians who served in British armed forces during WW2. Sadly, this exhibition looked hastily conceived and did not make much of an impact either visually or historically. The involvement of Indian troops and officers during WW2 is undoubtedly of great interest, but this exhibition did not really explore this even superficially. While I was looking at the show, a Sikh gentleman spoke with me and pointed to one of the photos on display. It showed his father, who had fought during the War.

The exhibition ends on the 22nd December, but the delights of Cubbon Park remain … at least for the foreseeable future, but for how long it is impossible to say in a city that gives more importance to real estate investments than to preservation of heritage.

Buying a postage stamp in Bangalore

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

ALL I NEEDED WAS A POSTAGE STAMP. I could have walked around the corner to the post office in nearby Museum Road, but I chose to do otherwise. I found that there is a post office in Shivajinagar, a busy district in central Bangalore that contains many places of interest with ‘local colour’.

I asked directions to the post office from a couple of men standing in their tiny silver shops on the corner of Jewellery Street and Ebrahim Saheb Street. One of the men pointed in one direction and the other at the opposite. After some discussion, these kind gentlemen decided that I should head towards the large mosque at the top end of Commercial Street.

The Jumma Masjid stands at one end of Commercial Street on a traffic filled lane. A wider street lined with shops and market stalls leads from this centre of Muslim worship to St Mary’s Basilica whose tall spire dominates the skyline. The church and its grounds were exuberantly decorated with Christmas decorations. A portrait of Mother Teresa overlooks the busy courtyard in front of the church. A stall was selling gawdy decorations including a model of Father Christmas playing a brass coloured saxophone.

One side of the square outside of the church compound was lined with stalls selling decorative Christmas items, ranging from paper stars to models of Nativity cribs.

A building with indo-arabesque domes lines part of another side of the square. This is Russell Market, an indoor food bazaar. The picturesque building was built by the British in 1927.

Russell is not the only market in Shivajinagar. On my rambles today, I came across a couple of other food markets. These are not housed in buildings like the Russell Market, but in simple shacks. Years ago while wandering in Shivajinagar, I came across an open air bazaar specialising in spare parts for automobiles. I have not been able to find this chaotic jumble of motoring spares again, but I have been told it still exists.

HKP Road leads away from the Square that contains Russell Market. I had never been along this road before. The first thing that caught my eye was the covered Beef Market, which bears the date 1932. Near its entrance I saw butchers working on huge pieces of unrefrigerated beef. There is another beef market, which I have visited before, at Johnson Market at the south of the city centre.

Outside the Beef Market, there were numerous cages containing birds for sale as pets. Proceeding a few yards away from the Beef Market, I had to step aside to avoid bumping into a live cow occupying most of the pavement outside a shop called “Blue Sea Aquarium”. This was close to a shop specialising in repairing sewing machines, both electrical and pedal operated.

After crossing a canal, or maybe, judging by its smell, an open sewer, I spotted an old house with ornate shades over its windows. I photographed it.

The old house is opposite a tiny post office, which I entered. Three men were sitting behind the counter in a disordered office space. Eventually, one of them attended to me. After weighing my letter and scrutinising the address on its envelope, I was handed a 5 Rupee stamp. Using glue from a pot on the counter I affixed the stamp.

I had already handed over twenty Rupees, but received no change. When I had stuck on the stamp, I asked for my change. The post office employee who had sold me the stamp seemed surprised. One of his colleagues rummaged around in a drawer, and handed me ten Rupees. Neither I nor the post office had five Rupees to give the correct change. I felt it was worth losing 5 Rupees at this transaction because my journey to reach it had been far more interesting than had I walked to the post office nearest to where I was staying.

After leaving the post office, I began walking back along HKP Road. A motor scooter pulled up alongside me. It was being driven by a man. Behind him sat his child and his wife in full burqa. He said that he had seen me taking a picture of his old house. I told him that I am interested in the old buildings of Bangalore. He told me that his house was over 100 years old and that I should visit his clothing shop in Commercial Street.

New York! New York!

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In 1992, I decided to visit New York City (‘NYC’). I had a week available and did not want to waste a minute of that precious time.

In order to make efficient use of my time in NYC, I bought several guidebooks. I spent several weeks studying them in my spare time. I wanted to make sure that I did not miss seeing anything that seemed likely to be of interest to me.

As I turned the pages of these books, something began to worry me and nearly made me want to cancel my trip. Each of the books had sections on dangers in the city including ‘mugging’. What worried me most was not that these books warned of the risks of being mugged, BUT what to do when you are mugged, rather than if you are unlucky enough to be mugged. The implication seemed to me to be that getting mugged was inevitable. That was what got me worried.

Well, I decided, if I was going to be mugged, I had better be prepared for it. Had the situation arrived, which (thank heavens) it did not, I was going to hand over my wallet politely without attempting a struggle. However, I was not prepared to hand over all my cash to any old criminal. To avoid this, I carried a useful nmber of US Dollars in my socks beneath the soles of my feet.

As it turned out, my week in NYC was not only free of unpleasant surprises but also highly enjoyable. 

The streets of NYC in 1992 were far more exciting and ‘edgy’ than when I returned for another visit in 2007. Between those two visits, Manhattan seemed to have been socially ‘sanitized’. The sense of excitement and uncertainty that I felt in 1992  had been replaced by an almost dull genteelness. Manhattan had been transformed from an electrifyingly live place to something like an urban theme park. No doubt, those who live there find it an improvement over what it was back in 1992, but I was a little disappointed.

Some know, others don’t

I know it is not a good idea to make generalisations, but it is quite fun to do so occasionally. So, here goes! This time, I am going to generalise about taxi drivers’ knowledge in London, Bombay, Bangalore, and Ahmedabad.

The drivers of London’s characteristic black (usually) cabs are only allowed to work when they have “The Knowledge”. That is, they have passed an examination that requires the candidate to have a very detailed knowledge of the streets of London. A London cabbie only very rarely does not know the way.

London’s minicab and Uber drivers do not have to be tested on The Knowledge, but they are usually very adept at using GPS systems.

In Bombay, there is a huge number of yellow and black cabs. In my experience, the drivers usually know their way around the city. Some of them raise all kinds of objection s before they give in to your wish to hire them, but once aboard they will take you where you want without requiring navigational assistance.

I find the best way to get around Bangalore is to travel in an autorickshaw. Their drivers often know the way, and if they do not, they will ask fellow autorickshaw drivers, who can point them in the right direction. Uber and it’s competitor Ola exist in Bangalore, but their drivers, often from out of town, are often clueless about the city’s geography and find GPS hard to understand.

It is our experience with autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad that prompted me to write this blog. We have made many trips in their vehicles. An enormous proportion of the drivers will tell you that they know how to reach a place, but in reality they have no clue. They will not admit their ignorance and are often reluctant to stop and ask for directions from bystanders.

One driver in Ahmedabad, who was completely lost, got annoyed with us, his customers, and said: “Why are you going somewhere if you don’t know how to get there? I should leave you here, and you can find your own way.”

I did say that I would be generalizing. In all fairness, I must record that some of the autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad have been very knowledgeable about their city, but these have been in the minority.

So, when you visit the truly wonderful city of Ahmedabad, you will find it helpful to be able to access Google maps on your mobile phone while travelling around.

Garden city

Bangalore in South India has long been known as the ‘Garden City’.

There are still many trees and gardens in the city, but these are gradually disappearing. With a population of 10 MILLION or more, there are excessive demands on the water supply. Trees are being chopped down to allow for road widening. This is causing the water table to sink lower and lower beneath the surface. The loss of tree cover and green space, which is becoming gobbled up by property developers, is causing the average ambient temperature to rise.

The ‘Garden City’ is under threat: it will soon be a concrete jungle, a jungle with few plants. Some say that within a decade or two, Bangalore will become uninhabitable. I hope this will not happen because the city is still a vibrant metropolis with a rich cultural and commercial life.